Resolving conflicts by remaining true to the vision
James Blevins, a congenial gent from Charlottesville, Virginia, is responsible for the behemoth task of supervising the post on Lucasfilm’s VFX-laden space Western The Mandalorian.
He’s considering whether his role is technical or artistic. To preface his answer, he asks: “Have you heard of the concept of the shadow artist?”
“They have this need to create, and if they cannot create themselves, for whatever reason, then they will support those who do. That’s what’s going on with me.”
Playing with fire
Like many roles in post, the job of a post supervisor falls somewhere between art and science, which is reflected in Blevins’ colourful career history.
Originally picking up his SAG card as a puppeteer, he soon expanded his box of toys as prop guy and flame operator (“a weapons master!”). But his technical nous also gifted him with conform jobs operating high-end SGI kit for the likes of Cinesite and Digital Domain.
He was brought onto The Mandalorian at the end of its first season by his boss, Jude Babcock (the pair had previously worked closely both at Netflix and Disney) to ‘iron out’ some of the challenges the series was having with the colour space pipeline.
“My main job was to ensure that the colour space of the show was well accommodated, in relation to the vision of the DP, Baz Idoine and [showrunner] Jon Favreau and the creative team – but also within the spec of the studio,” he explains.
“If someone wants to fight you, you have to weigh the needs of the department with the needs of the show and elevate the conversation to that point.”
Synchronising the vision
Another of Blevins’ key tasks is to present technical options for every part of the workflow and be in lockstep with “just about everybody”:
“There’s a lot of people trying to make do with the tools that they are given and I can help them see what their options might be… relating to how they want to shoot; how they want to review, how they want to cut; how they want to colour and how they want to mix.”
On such large-scale interdepartmental collaborations, occasional friction is inevitable. For Blevins, the best way to resolve any conflict is boil everything down to remaining true to the vision of the series. “If someone wants to fight you, you have to weigh the needs of the department with the needs of the show and elevate the conversation to that point.”
On a series with over 5,000 VFX shots – that’s more than the average superhero blockbuster – accommodating the needs of this department in particular is “the heavy lift” according to Blevins.
The Lucasfilm show is also famously innovative with virtual production techniques that combine live-action footage with computer graphics in real time – through the use of gaming engines and giant LED walls. And as you’d expect, such a technologically advanced production requires robust on-set post support.
“They need to have a place to run to in between shots to have editorial discussions, which pulls the post-super on set,” he explains, adding that in the digital world, post needs to become another part of the camera prep, regardless of the production techniques being used.
The never-ending magic hour
Observing the use of this nascent technology firsthand, Blevins thinks they’ve only scratched the surface in terms of what can be achieved. But right now, the major challenge is light.
“We have to come up with additional light sources if a harsh shadow is what’s needed. Because the LED walls only go so bright, so you will run into a real challenge if you are trying to emulate something in broad daylight.
“But you can shoot ‘magic hour’ forever. It is absolutely made for that and that’s why some of the best scenes in The Mandalorian are not only sunsets and sunrises but interiors as well,” he says.
Shooting had almost wrapped on season two when the pandemic struck, and the world hit pause. But as is often the case, necessity is the mother of invention. Blevins says he welcomes the way in which Hollywood has finally embraced cloud-based workflows and marvels at the way they were able to continue with the mastering of the Disney+ sci-fi ….
“We worked with Sohonet and used its white glove service that not only enabled but also encouraged us to get to our respected positions,” he says. “Mastering at home was a challenge because at that point everyone needs to see the quality of the final colour. It has to be the best that’s ever been shot, so we did let one person go on prem to view the material in its uncompressed form, to spot anomalies,” he adds.
“But it was amazing to see the HDR output of the show and deliver it to the studio feeling confident that what we made was what people were going to see. We were dealing with 80MB streams, it was compressed but accommodated all the colour.”
The hard parts, he adds, were the human elements: working in isolation and not always being able to appreciate the bigger picture. “Working side by side with my colleagues to solve a problem is one of the most gratifying parts of the process. Now coffee breaks have to happen over Zoom.
“It’s also easy to forget that you’re working on something much bigger than one shot – you can’t just get up and go and visit craft services where there are a group of people standing in front of a camera. You need to be pragmatic and think of other solutions,” he adds.
The stream team
Prior to Lucasfilm, Blevins was tasked with another key role in late 2014: helping set up the post department at the still fledgling streaming outfit Netflix.
“I was helping to set up the first global IP network on the planet – and I made sure everyone knew that! They accused me of being a ‘stop and smell the roses’ guy, but I own that,” he says with a smile.
Blevins is clearly still impressed by his former employer’s dynamism and claims you won’t find another company [more] committed to the concept of building a studio.
“We were given everything we needed. I’d have a meeting with the R&D team and by the time I went home, they’d already iterated my notes and rolled it into the software.”
‘Part of the legacy’
He admits to being a ‘feathers-in-your-cap’ sort, and looking at the impressive list of companies he’s worked for – many of which he joined when they were on the brink of growth or change – it’s hard to disagree.
However, his ultimate cap feather it seems, was getting to star in the second season of The Mandalorian as the voice of the squid-faced Quarren. It’s an accolade he now shares with his actor grandfather Peter Hobbs, who performed voice over work on the original 1977 Star Wars film.
The producers were having an editorial issue and thought they may have to reshoot, but then someone suggested that the voice should sound like ‘a good ol’ boy’.
“Well, I’m from Virginia and I knew I could make that work, and they loved it. When I told John [Favreau] about my grandfather he just gasped and said, ‘Wow – you’re part of the legacy!’”